China's View of the Debt Debate: America in Decline

Illustration by Edel Rodriguez

Xian, China—viewed from inside the Beltway, the passage of legislation to raise the federal debt ceiling was a triumph for democracy.

“The push and pull Americans saw in Washington these past few weeks…was the will of the people working itself out,” declared Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate. The appearance of Gabrielle Giffords to vote for the bill raised not just the ceiling but also the roof.

Viewed from Beijing, it looked very different. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine what more we could have done to vindicate the Chinese Communist Party’s position that Western democracy is a form of institutionalized chaos to be avoided by all sane Asians.

One of my friends from China asked me how much of the federal debt was owed by the government to itself. I had to check. The answer is just less than a third, since various agencies like the Social Security Trust Fund are major holders of U.S. Treasuries.

“So,” he mused, “Congress just voted not to default on the debt the government owes itself?” I had to admit that was correct. “And how much of the federal debt is owed by the government to the American people?” More checking. The answer is that just more than a third is owed to U.S. citizens and the banks and pension funds that manage their savings.

“So the will of the people was that it would be better not to default on the government’s debt to…the people?” I couldn’t deny it.

Readers who enjoy arithmetic can now answer a further question: what proportion of the federal debt is owed to foreigners? The answer is just less than a third. If you exclude the part of the debt the government owes to itself, the figure is 46 percent—nearly half. But my Chinese friend didn’t need me to tell him that. Everyone here knows that the United States is in hock to the rest of the world and that China is its No. 1 creditor.

According to official figures, mainland China holds $1.1 trillion in U.S.-government debt instruments. But it’s an open secret that the Chinese authorities also like to buy Treasuries via intermediaries in London, Hong Kong, and elsewhere. Add the U.K. and Hong Kong figures and the total is closer to $1.6 trillion—about 17 percent of the federal debt in public hands. And if you include nongovernmental securities held in China’s international reserves, the U.S. debt to China rises to more than $2 trillion.

The antics of American legislators take on a new significance when you realize how our leading creditor interprets them. As Beijing sees it, the last three months have furnished ample evidence that—regardless of what the American rating agencies may say—the United States is no longer creditworthy. Even if Congress has pulled back from the brink of outright default, many in China view the debt deal as at best a temporary fix. As the Xinhua News Agency put it, the 11th-hour deal has “failed to defuse Washington’s debt bomb for good, only delaying an immediate detonation by making the fuse an inch longer.” Meanwhile, the unspoken intention of the Federal Reserve is to debase the dollar through “quantitative easing,” which translates into Mandarin as “printing money.” (It’s no accident that one of the bestselling economics books in China is called Currency Wars.)

So the Chinese have skin in this game. And their U.S. exposure doesn’t stop there. In order to prevent devaluation of their dollars, they have no option but to keep buying yet more dollar-denominated securities. That strategy suits their exporters fine, since it keeps their goods competitive in the American market. But what if the effect of last week’s debt deal, which mandates deficit reduction of $2.1 trillion over the next 10 years, causes a further slowdown in U.S. growth? Not so good.

China has its own economic problems, to be sure. But they are the problems of a rising power. From Beijing’s standpoint, America’s problems are plainly those of a power in decline. We didn’t just raise a ceiling last week. In Chinese eyes, we also fell through a floor.